Local Journalist Heroes: Keri Blakinger
This Q&A is part of Local Heroes: Journalists Covering COVID-19, PEN America’s series spotlighting local journalists across the country in celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2020, elevating the importance of a free, vibrant, and inclusive press.
Name: Keri Blakinger
Outlet: The Marshall Project
City: Houston, TX
What personal risks have you or your colleagues faced while covering COVID-19?
For once, covering prisons has been particularly lucky in this respect. Normally writing about prisons and jails requires a decent amount of facility visits, but those got cut off at most facilities in mid-March, so I’ve been doing almost all of my reporting remotely. Obviously, that has its own challenges, but in a pandemic it has one advantage: I’m relatively able to isolate while continuing to do my job, at least as best as I can.
“There are just more prisons and jails than there are reporters to cover them right now.”
What do you consider to be the biggest threats to a free and vibrant press in the midst of this crisis?
The thing that makes my job physically safer for me—the fact that I can’t visit—is also a threat to the ability of reporters to cover stories. Prisons are already notoriously and purposely opaque. Now, the limited in-person contact reporters were able to have is gone, and our ability to oversee what goes on behind bars is diminished. On top of that, the fact that many government entities are delaying the fulfillment of records requests as a result of the pandemic means that it’s more difficult to find supporting data and documentation for stories. But beyond all that, the economic fallout of this has already begun wreaking havoc on this industry, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.
Are there any stories or communities that you feel are underreported in regards to the COVID-19 crisis? Similarly, what non COVID-19 stories have you seen shelved or ignored because of the hyper-focus on the current crisis?
It’s funny—usually I feel like prisons don’t get nearly enough coverage. But right now, it seems that news outlets are paying attention to prisons and jails more than ever. I think people realized early on that these facilities could be disease hotspots, and it’s been great to see the increased coverage. That said, there are a ton of these places—and there are a lot of individual facilities that aren’t getting covered, even as people are beginning to pay attention to the larger systems as a whole. There are just more prisons and jails than there are reporters to cover them right now.
“The thing that makes my job physically safer for me—the fact that I can’t visit—is also a threat to the ability of reporters to cover stories. Prisons are already notoriously and purposely opaque. Now, the limited in-person contact reporters were able to have is gone, and our ability to oversee what goes on behind bars is diminished.”
Who else is doing excellent coverage?
Nationally, Keegan Hamilton at VICE is doing great work on BOP, and The Appeal is doing a great job following local issues—and some non-corona coverage (remember that?). Jimmy Jenkins is doing great work in Arizona, Reuven Blau at THE CITY in NYC is always fabulous, Emilie Eaton in San Antonio has been doing some great work, Joseph Jaafari in PA, and Connor Sheets in Alabama are also doing great state-level coverage. But this is also a time that really, small papers are shining; the tiny papers in prison towns, like The Huntsville Item, the Palestine Herald-Press, and The Facts in Brazoria County are all breaking stories about things that prisons are doing. They aren’t making it onto the radar of bigger organizations, but maybe they should be. In short, there are a lot of people paying attention to criminal justice right now.
About Keri Blakinger
Keri Blakinger is a staff writer whose work has focused on prisons and prosecutors. She previously covered criminal justice for the Houston Chronicle, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, VICE, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, and NBC News. She is the organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter and is currently working on a memoir to be published with St. Martin’s Press.